Cosmology and the Origins of Civilization as Discussed in Laird Scranton’s The Cosmological Origins of Myth and Symbol

By Kyla Glaser, ESQ

     Cosmology is the study of the universe, everything in it and our place within.  It has played an essential role in many ancient tribes and civilizations; the Mayans and Incas studied the skies and structured every part of their lives according to their studies of the stars and the universe.  Unfortunately, these civilizations collapsed, leaving few, if any, clues about their beliefs or knowledge of the universe they saw and the underlying beliefs that proved to be their civilizing force.  The collapse of these civilizations also meant that the use of hieroglyphics as the main form of communication became rare.  To date, there are few who use any form of hieroglyphics.  Although rare, there are still several civilizations that still use hieroglyphics as their written communication and some who have no written communication at all. 

     One of these is a tribe known as the Dogon.  They reside on a plateau in Mali.  Their homeland is an area that is bisected by the Bandiagara Escarpment (a sandstone cliff of up to 500m (1,640 ft.) high) that stretches about 150 km (almost 100 miles), the southeastern boundary is the sandy Séno-Gondo Plains and the Niger river forms the final boundary.  The Dogon moved to this area approximately 1,000 years after they were persecuted because they refused to convert to Islam and recognize Sudanese rule.  Artwork and sculpture are key to the Dogon belief system and, as such, they are not made to be seen publicly.  Hidden from view of the public, they are usually hidden within the houses of families, sanctuaries, or kept with the Hogon, (the shaman of the Dogon people).  This secrecy is due to the symbolic meaning behind the pieces and the process by which they are made.(Example of Dogon Sculpture c/o Wikipedia)

     Dogon believe that the brightest star in the sky, Sirius (sigi tolo or ‘star of the Sigui), has two companion stars, po- tolo (the Digitaria star), and emme ya tolo, (the female Sorghum star), respectively they are the  first and second companions of Sirius A. The Dogon believe Sirius formed one of the foci for the orbit of a tiny star, its companionate Digitaria star. When po-tolo is closest to Sirius, it brightens; when it is farthest from Sirius, it gives off a twinkling effect that suggests to the observer several stars. Po-tolo’s orbit cycle takes 60 years. The Dogon also claim to know of the rings of Saturn, and the moons of Jupiter.  Where did this knowledge come from?  How did the Dogon know about these stars?  And, considering that the Dogon have no written language at all, where did this knowledge come from?

     In 1931 French anthropologist Marcel Griaule studied the Dogon.  He and his companion, Dieterlen, were puzzled by this Sudanese star system, this belief in Sirius, and prefaced their analysis by saying: “The problem of knowing how, with no instruments at their disposal, men could know the movements and certain characteristics of virtually invisible stars has not been settled, nor even posed.”  In 1976 Robert K. G. Temple wrote a book called The Sirius Mystery, arguing that the Dogon’s system reveals precise knowledge of cosmological facts that can only be known by the development of modern astronomy, since they appear to know, from Griaule and Dieterlen’s account, that Sirius was part of a binary star system, whose second star, Sirius B, is a white dwarf.  This was, however, completely invisible to the naked human eye, (just as Digitaria is the smallest grain known to the Dogon), and that it took 50 years to complete its orbit.  Some argue the Dogon’s information, if traced back to ancient Egyptian sources and myth, indicated an extraterrestrial transmission of knowledge of these stars.  The question of the origin of this knowledge and the influence of cosmology on the Dogon and their beliefs is fully explored by Laird Scranton in his book The Cosmological Origins of Myth and Symbol: From the Dogon and Ancient Egypt to India, Tibet, and China.


(Shaman c/o Wikipedia) 

This book is the third in a series designed to probe the cosmology of the Dogon.  By examining Dogon ritual and practice, examining Griaule and Dieterlen’s work and Egyptian hieroglyphs, Scranton delves into the connections between Egyptian cosmological beliefs and those of the Dogon.  He fleshes out his theory that, by looking at Egyptian hieroglyphs that embody the core concepts of creation and civilization, one can draw important clues about the creation beliefs and where those beliefs originated.  Put simply, he strives to answer the question of how the Dogon came to believe what they do and how these beliefs are perpetuated in ritual.  In addition to the Dogon, he also examines the possible connection to Buddhism, as well.  Clearly, this is a vast topic that has many approaches and viewpoints.  However, as laid out by Scranton and without reading the first two books, the reader is plunged into a far away world without much background briefing.  I found that I was confused almost immediately and, not being well versed in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, Scranton’s immediate use of them with little explanation of them was particularly difficult to continue to plow through.  He tries very hard to elucidate how these particular hieroglyphics fit and what they might mean, but, because he does so with so little background and basic information of their purpose, I was thoroughly confused until . . . I got far enough into the book and Scranton elucidates the goal of the book and everything that I had read needed to be re-read toward that end.  Because of this, the book of only 181 pages took me several months to read and, even after I understood the purpose, was till excessively dry.  In fact, my husband noted that this book worked better than my sleeping pill.  All kidding aside, I wonder if reading the first two books would have helped this situation and given me immediate understanding from page one.  Although it was a very slow read, Scranton has packed a bundle into this small book and his scholarship is to be admired.  The subject matter is, in and of itself, fascinating and he does a great job of elucidating the cosmological parallels he sees.  In the end, one is left with a feeling that this book only scratches the surface.  Because of the snail’s pace this book reads at and the lack of a meaningful introduction, I give it 2.5out of 5 Stars (or Ho-hum).  However, if you’re looking for a scholarly dissertation backed by solid academic thinking and you don’t mind the dense format and slow reading, it’s worth at least checking out.



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